Few in China had heard of Oskaras Korsunovas Theater, or OKT in short, when the Lithuanian troupe first presented Hamlet as part of the mammoth Theater Olympics festival in late 2014 in Beijing.
Few went to see it. But those who did were so awestruck that word of mouth turned it into a breakout hit.
Now, OKT’s Hamlet is back, presenting five performances each in Beijing (concluded on Sunday), Shanghai (March 10-13) and Guangzhou (March 17-20).
Suffice it to say, this is not a Hamlet for the uninitiated. While it’s the opposite of complacency, the brilliance and flair of its directorial treatment are most evident to those who are well versed in this much-beloved and often-staged classic.
The biggest touch of genius, to this reviewer, is the stage setup, for which nine dressing tables form endlessly changeable geometric patterns. It also adds another layer of meaning－that of theater－to the story. So, the characters’ questions are interwoven with the actors’ own existential angst.
This brings us to the opening line, which is “Who’s there?” in the original play and “Who are you?” in the OKT production. While “Who’s there” can indeed be translated into “Who are you” in this context, the change does not bring out as much as invent a new dimension that was not there in the first place. I do not think it is totally subversive, but definitely director-oriented, offering one unique interpretation that can be ingeniously revelatory at its best or maddeningly confounding at worst.
For example, Hamlet’s father and Claudius are played by the same actor. I assumed it was out of logistical necessity. But no, the casting choice became shockingly relevant when Hamlet forces his mother to compare her two husbands while pointing to two mirrors that flank the same actor. Villain and victim become two sides of the same coin.
This is further complicated by the age of the actor who plays the title character. Hamlet looks not a year younger than the actor playing his uncle-father. The story seems to be happening within the same age group. Now I believe it was not due to the failure of the actors or makeup artists. You can draw whatever conclusions you like.
The second best thing about Oskaras Korsunovas’s tinkering is the merging of scenes. Instead of ending one scene and starting another in a clear-cut way, he lets them flow into each other, often revolving around one character or one detail. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on the England-bound ship take on the roles of the gravediggers without missing a beat or even a fadeout; Hamlet’s fight with Laertes at Ophelia’s graveside jumps to Gertrude drinking the poisoned wine.
You may be alarmed by this level of condensing, but some of the connection is very film-like in nature－and pacing.
And obviously the director gives unequal emphasis to different parts of the play. Ophelia’s death receives a kind of rehearsal in a pre-nunnery scene and the “To be or not to be” soliloquy is repeated at the end, climaxing with “The rest is silence”, which delivers the knockout punch, so to speak.
It is near impossible to capture the greatness of arguably the greatest play in the world onstage in its entirety. So, why not make a sharp impression with some of it? If this is the concept, it has－without a doubt－succeeded.
Qian Ruisha, China Daily, 9th March 2016